The Linguistics of Data Visualization

By: Bridget Cogley

Is data visualization a language? I think so.

When asked about language, we often point to spoken language examples, such as English, Spanish, Hindi or Mixteco. These ideas often omit languages like American Sign Language, French Sign Language and Auslan (Australian Sign Language). Yet, sign languages share all the features of English or Spanish. The only exception is modality – that is, signed languages use the hands, face and body for expression, while spoken languages use sounds.

One definition of language – the one I display in this accompanying presentation – is from linguists who have taken in account all modes of language. Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely, pioneers in the field of linguistics, define language this way:

“A language is a system of relatively arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals that changes across time and that members of a community share and use for several purposes: to interact with each other, to communicate their ideas, emotions, and intentions, and to transmit their culture from generation to generation.”

In my presentation, I break down this definition some more and also go through different experiments. These Andy Warhol-type iterations illustrate that choice around color, placement and the like matters.  

So, the real question is, how can you use this for your dashboards? Here are three ways:

  1. Focus on relationships between charts and how they’re made. You’ll see in the presentation how a number of factors influence this.
  2. Know that while color can disrupt a good dashboard, it’s not the “end-all, be-all” we make it out to be.
  3. Feel free to be creative! Often times, the crunch of time gets to us. Creating the space makes a better dashboard.

Yes, data visualization is a language. When spoken properly, it can provide tremendous value to your company.

5 Steps to Sell a BI Strategy Upstream